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Poland: How two women are promoting sustainable fashion

Jo Harper Katowice, Poland
April 27, 2023

The EU wants clothing companies to come up with greener business models by 2030, but can we live without fast fashion? Two Polish women are showing how we can rethink our relationship with what we wear.

https://p.dw.com/p/4QXpU
A woshwosh worker refurbishing a sneaker
Woshwosh is driving an attitude change among young consumersImage: Martyna Zastawna

"I started because I didn’t want to throw out an old pair of shoes and couldn’t find anywhere that would repair and clean them for me," says Martyna Zastawna, the founder and owner of woshwosh, the world's first shoe cleaning, restoration, repair and customization company.

"I looked in Warsaw, then in Poland, then across Europe, but nothing like this seemed to exist," she told DW at the European Economic Congress in Katowice, southern Poland. 

Woshwosh, which employs 30 people in the Polish capital Warsaw, has been operating on the market since 2015. During this time the firm has renewed over 500,000 pairs of shoes. 

Zastawna started as a 24-year old fresh out of university in a small apartment in the eastern Warsaw district of Goclaw. "It was me and my dog at the start," she says. "But very quickly we had 500 pairs of shoes to handle, and I had to rent a place to do it."

"The mood seemed to change in Poland in 2019, actually before the pandemic, and we caught the wave of environmentally friendly consumerism," she adds.

Zastawna's sustainability efforts also benefit Poland's tens of thousands of homeless people. Just a few years after founding her firm, she organized a shoe collection drive to help the homeless. Since then, woshwosh has collected and donated more than 180,000 pairs of shoes to those in need.

"We need to learn that instead of throwing away the shoes we don't wear, we can give them to others, prolong their lives and thus help the other person and the planet," Zastawna says.

WoshWosh founder Martyna Zastawna
Martyna Zastawna, founder and owner of woshwosh, says her company aims to make a positive impact on the planetImage: Jo Harper/DW

EU targets will be hard to meet

Woshwosh is one of the few companies ready to meet the European Union's sustainability targets for the fashion industry.

The clothing and footwear industry needs to become more environmentally friendly by 2030, according to the European Commission’s Strategy for a Sustainable Textile Sector.

Products on the EU market will need to be durable much longer than at present and recyclable, made mainly of recycled fiber, free of hazardous substances and produced with respect for social rights and the environment. 

"That means that companies will have to redefine their value chains, product design, production and communication," says Agnieszka Oleksyn-Wajda, director of the Institute of Sustainable Development at the Lazarski University in Warsaw.

Oleksyn-Wajda lauds the EU’s ambitious plan but wonders if sustainable fashion will be economically viable, and if the deadline is not too tight.

"The EU's ambition is that circular textiles will also be affordable for the consumer. However, taking into account the instruments to be introduced by companies [such as digital product passport], and also innovation [eco-design, new technologies allowing textile fiber-to-fiber recycling], developing the skills needed for the green transition, I presume the total cost of the textile product will be higher," says Oleksyn-Wajda.

Polen l European Economic Congress EEC l Agnieszka Oleksyn-Wajda
We have to redefine value chains, product design, production and communication, says Agnieszka Oleksyn-Wajda.Image: Jo Harper/DW

A change in behavior

Oleksyn-Wajda also stressed that embracing the new strategy would also mean a "reshaping of the purchasing habits of consumers and introducing new circular business models such as product-as-service models, take-back services, secondhand collections and repair services." 

She cites data from the European Commission, which show that since 1996, the amount of clothing purchased in the EU per person has increased by 40% thanks to a sharp drop in prices, which has shortened the lifespan of clothes. Europeans use nearly 26 kilograms (57 pounds) of textiles and throw away around 11 kilograms of them every year. 

A report by research company Kantar found that over 90% of Polish society agrees that humanity is facing climate and environmental crises, but just one in 10 Poles takes any real action to reduce their own environmental and climate footprint.

"There is an attitude–behavior gap," says Oleksyn-Wajda. 

Initiatives underway

The fashion industry is taking voluntary initiatives to reduce emissions in its supply chain. For instance, the industry has committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 as part of the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action under the auspices of the United Nations.

Another critical aspect of the strategy is transparent, reliable and measurable communication with consumers. A digital product passport will include information on a product's origins, fiber composition, as well as whether it's recyclable or not.

Fast fashion and the flood of used clothes

A personal journey

Together with a friend, Oleksyn-Wajda started a small fashion brand in Poland. After two years though, because of the cost of conducting the business and difficulties subcontractors had meeting deadlines, she had to give up.

"I realized that for such a business must-have knowledge is not only business and law but also marketing, product development and a good network of subcontractors," she says.

Oleksyn-Wajda studied the industry in great detail and found there were no courses that a young entrepreneur could take in Poland to gain such skills. So, she co-created the post-graduate course on the fashion sector at Lazarski University.

The leading theme of the course is promoting sustainability in the fashion sector.

"Education in this field is critical," she says. "It is the volume of individuals that causes change. Even if one person in 30 starts to think differently about buying and taking care of clothes, I perceive it as a success and good impact."

Edited by: Ashutosh Pandey